Military Service Act (Canada)

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The Military Service Act, 1917[1] was an act passed by the Parliament of Canada in an effort to recruit more soldiers.


The First World War was going badly, casualties were enormous, and Canada's contribution in manpower compared unfavourably with that of other countries. Voluntary enlistment had been uneven, and the military believed they could not maintain the Canadian Corps at full strength without conscription. Encouraged by English Canadians and the British, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden introduced the Military Service Act.[2] Riots broke out in Quebec.

The Militia Act of 1904[3] already provided for military service for all male British subjects between the ages of 18 and 60, but the calling-up was by levée en masse,[4] which would have caused massive disruption through the pulling of skilled workers from agriculture and industry.[5]


Under the 1917 act, the male population of Canada was divided into several classes for the purpose of being called up for military service, from which certain exceptions were available:

Framework of the Military Service Act, 1917
Legislation Persons subject to the act[6] Classes[7] Exceptions[8] Exemptions[9]
Act of 1917 Every male British subject falling within one of the specified classes, who is:
  • ordinarily resident in Canada; or
  • has been at resident in Canada at any time since August 4, 1914, unless where he
  • falls within one of the specified exceptions, or he
  • reaches the age of 45 prior to his class or subclass being called up.
  1. Those who have the age of twenty years, born not earlier than 1883, and are unmarried or a widower with no child.
  2. Those who have the age of twenty years, born not earlier than 1883, and are married or a widower with a child or children.
  3. Those born not in the years 1876 to 1882 inclusive, and are unmarried or a widower with no child.
  4. Those born not in the years 1876 to 1882 inclusive, and are married or a widower with a child or children.
  5. Those born not in the years 1872 to 1875 inclusive, and are unmarried or a widower with no child.
  6. Those born not in the years 1872 to 1875 inclusive, and are married or a widower with a child or children.

Any man married after July 6, 1917 shall be deemed to be unmarried.

  1. Men who hold a certificate of exemption issued under the act.
  2. Members of His Majesty's regular, reserve or auxiliary forces.
  3. Members of military forces raised by any of the other Dominions or the Government of India.
  4. Men serving in the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Naval Service of Canada or the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
  5. Men who have served since August 4, 1914 in the military or naval forces of Great Britain or her allies in any theatre of actual war, and have been honourably discharged.
  6. Clergy, members of holy orders and ministers of any religious denomination existing when the act came into force.
  7. Persons exempted from military service by the Orders in Council of August 13, 1873[a] and December 6, 1898.[b]
  1. Importance of continuing employment in habitual occupation.
  2. Importance of employment in a special occupation for which one has special qualifications.
  3. Importance of continuing education or training.
  4. Serious hardship owing to exceptional financial obligations.
  5. Serious hardship owing to exceptional business obligations.
  6. Serious hardship owing to exceptional domestic position.
  7. Ill health or infirmity.
  8. Adherence to a religious denomination of which the articles of faith forbid combatant service.
Dominion Elections Act, s. 67A[c] Anyone who has voted in a Dominion election after October 7, 1917 is ineligible and incompetent to obtain an exception by reason of being a Mennonite or Doukhobor. British subjects naturalized after March 31, 1902 (together with their sons not yet of legal age) who were either born in an enemy country, or came from any European country and whose mother tongue is a language of an enemy country, are exempted from military service.[d]

Anyone who has voted in a Dominion election after October 7, 1917 is ineligible and incompetent to obtain an exemption on conscientious grounds.

Regulations under P.C. 919 of April 20, 1918[13] Class 1 and Class 2 shall include all those have attained the age of nineteen years, but were born on or since October 13, 1897, and are resident in Canada.

Any person who subsequently reaches the age of nineteen, and is unmarried or a widower with no child, becomes immediately subject to military law and must present himself to the local registrar within the following ten days for the purpose of being placed on active service.

The words "in any theatre of actual war" shall not include the high seas or Great Britain and Ireland. Any exemptions previously granted under the 1917 act shall cease forthwith, but the Minister may grant leave of absence without pay by reason of death, disablement or service by other members of the same family while on active service in any actual theatre of war.
Regulations under P.C. 1250 of May 22, 1918[14] Leave of absence without pay extended to those men being the sole support of widows, an invalid father, or other helpless dependants.

A system of local and appeal tribunals was in place for determining exemptions claimed under the act.[15]

The men of Class 1 were called up to report for military service on November 10, 1917,[16] with the deadline delayed until December 12, 1917 for those living in the Yukon Territory (who did not need to report for duty until January 7, 1918).[17]

Men within any class who, after August 4, 1914, had moved to the United States or elsewhere were also required to submit to the provisions of the act.[18]

Further regulations issued on April 30, 1918, required all persons claiming an exemption to carry documention supporting such a claim, with lack of documentation resulting in detention without recourse to habeas corpus,[19] and public notices of these regulations were published across Canada.[20] This left farming operations across Canada short of much-needed labour.[citation needed]

Conscripts raised[edit]

Men raised under the Military Service Act, 1917[21]
Status of Men Number
Class I Registrations 401,822
Granted exemption 221,949
Liable for Military Service 179,933
Unapprehended defaulters 24,139
Available but not called 26,225
Reported for Military Service 129,569
Permitted to enlist in Imperial forces (RAF, Royal Engineers Inland Water Transport and other units) 8,445
Taken on strength CEF 124,588
Performed no military service and struck off strength upon being found medically unfit, eligible for exemption or liable for non-combatant service only 16,300
Available for service with CEF units 108,288
Discharged prior to November 11, 1918 8,637
On strength CEF, November 11, 1918 99,651
Proceeded overseas 47,509
Taken on strength units in France 24,132[e]

Postwar sanctions[edit]

After the war, Ontario passed legislation providing that, for a ten-year period from April 24, 1919, anyone who failed to perform any duty required under the Act, or was convicted of any treasonable or seditious offences during the war, was disqualified from holding any provincial, municipal or educational office, or from being able to vote at any related election for such offices.[24]


The act was unevenly administered, and there were numerous evasions and many exemptions. The act's military value has been questioned, but its political consequences were clear. It led to Borden's Union government and drove most of his French Canadian supporters into opposition, as they were seriously alienated by this attempt to enforce their participation in an imperial war.[25] Conflicts between the government's calls for greater agricultural production and conscription would lead to the rise of the farmers' movements of the 1920s, and would have more lasting effects in rural and Western alienation.[26] Lessons learned from the First World War experience were used in framing the National Resources Mobilization Act that was passed in the Second World War.[27]

The act fell into disuse, and was repealed as obsolete upon the proclamation of the Revised Statutes of Canada, 1952.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • "The Military Service Act, 1917: Manual". Ottawa: King's Printer. March 2, 1918.
  • Djebabla, Mourad (2013). "'Fight or Farm': Canadian Farmers and the Dilemma of the War Effort in World War I (1914-1918)" (PDF). Canadian Military Journal. 13 (2): 57–67. ISSN 1492-465X.
  • Nicholson, G.W.L. (1962). "XI. Conscription". Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 (PDF). Ottawa: Queen's Printer. pp. 340–361.
  • Sharpe, Christopher (2015). "Recruitment and Conscription (Canada)". International Encyclopedia of the First World War. doi:10.15463/ie1418.10670.
  • Shaw, J. (2009). Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press. ISBN 978-0-7748-1593-2.


  1. ^ which granted Mennonites exemption from military service[10]
  2. ^ which granted Doukhobors exemption from military service[11]
  3. ^ as inserted by The War-time Elections Act, S.C. 1917, c. 39, s. 2(e)
  4. ^ By reason of having been declared ineligible to vote in Dominion elections, but certain exceptions could apply.[12]
  5. ^ This total was debunked by Michel Gravel in 2005.[22]. The number of conscripts that reached the front has not yet been properly determined.[23]


  1. ^ The Military Service Act, 1917, S.C. 1917, c. 19
  2. ^ Dennis, Patrick M. (Apr–May 2018). "1918: Year of the Conscript". Canada's History. 98 (2): 40-47. ISSN 1920-9894.CS1 maint: Date format (link)
  3. ^ The Militia Act, S.C. 1904, c. 23
  4. ^ 1904 Act, s. 11
  5. ^ Nicholson 1962, p. 344.
  6. ^ 1917 Act, s. 2
  7. ^ 1917 Act, s. 3
  8. ^ 1917 Act, s. 11
  9. ^ 1917 Act, Schedule
  10. ^ "Order in council 1873-0957". August 13, 1873.
  11. ^ "Order in council 1898-2747". December 6, 1898.
  12. ^ MSA1917 Manual, pp. 18-19.
  13. ^ "P.C. 919". Canada Gazette. April 20, 1918.
  14. ^ "P.C. 1250". Canada Gazette. May 25, 1918.
  15. ^ 1917 Act, ss. 5-10
  16. ^ "Proclamation". Canada Gazette. 51 (15): 1157. October 13, 1917.
  17. ^ "Proclamation". Canada Gazette. Extra. October 16, 1917.
  18. ^ "Proclamation". Canada Gazette. Extra. October 26, 1917.
  19. ^ "P.C. 1013". Canada Gazette. Extra. May 11, 1918.
  20. ^ "Public Notice". The Georgetown Herald. June 5, 1918. p. 4.
  21. ^ Nicholson 1962, p. 551.
  22. ^ Gravel, Michel (2005). "Appendix". Tough as Nails: The Epic Story of John Hillie Foley, DCM and Bar, MM, C de G, 1914–18. Ottawa: CEF Books. ISBN 1-89697962-9.
  23. ^ Gravel, Michel (2015). "CMH Mailbox". Canadian Military History. 22 (2): 2–3.
  24. ^ The Disqualification Act, 1919, S.O. 1919, c. 6 , later amended by The Disqualification Act, 1922, S.O. 1922, c. 3
  25. ^ "Military Service Act". Canadian Encyclopedia.
  26. ^ Everett-Green, Robert (June 28, 2014). "How Ottawa's First World War plans sparked western alienation". The Globe and Mail. Toronto.
  27. ^ Djebabla 2013, p. 65.

External links[edit]